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In Pikangikum, gas sniffing is rampant and young people are taking their own lives at a shocking rate.
Randy Keeper is sick of building coffins. A wiry fellow who looks younger than his 49 years, Keeper is proud of his job as a carpenter and crew leader, saying he’s built 25 houses from scratch over 17 years in Pikangikum, the reserve in northwestern Ontario where he has lived his whole life. But when it comes to the wooden boxes he builds for Pikangikum’s dead, he draws a blank. “I don’t count them,” he says from his daughter’s dining room table. He remembers the last ones, though. They were in December. “I had to make two in one day, one for an elder and one for a younger person.”
The dreams started a couple of weeks after that. In one, he’s lying face up in a freshly dug grave, watching as a cofﬁn is slowly lowered toward him. He doesn’t know if there’s anyone inside, but he recognizes his handiwork: 100 lb. of plywood, treated pine and nails, a simple enough thing that takes him no more than 90 minutes to build. In the dream he’s alive but can’t move as it comes down on his chest, smothering him. Then he wakes up. “The elders told me to stop making them,” he says, “but I have no choice because I work for the band. I get nervous, shaky. Once the dreams happened I’d say yes out of respect for chief and council, but sometimes I don’t show up.”
Keeper is in high demand. Pikangikum, a fly-in reserve located about 300 km northeast of Winnipeg, is a place constantly haunted by the spectre of suicide. Over nearly four decades, the people of Pikangikum have seen dozens upon dozens of their friends and family members take their own lives. Last year, six people from the Ojibwa First Nations community killed themselves in as many weeks. In 2011, the community of roughly 2,400 had a suicide rate equivalent to 250 per 100,000—nearly 20 times that of Canada, and far and away the highest in the world. It has been so for 20 nearly uninterrupted years.
In recent months, the Attawapiskat reserve on James Bay served as a reminder of the deplorable conditions in many of Canada’s native communities. The lack of adequate housing in the frigid temperatures, followed by an acrimonious funding fight with the federal government, has kept the James Bay reserve of 1,800 in the public eye for months—a rare feat when it comes to native issues.
Separated by 500 km of northern Ontario wilderness, Attawapiskat and Pikangikum both suffer from a raft of structural and social problems: lack of housing and running water, addiction and poverty. Yet a glance at the numbers suggests Pikangikum is worse off—much worse. Consider how 80 per cent of its housing doesn’t have sewage pipes or running water; consider how the community of 2,400 had just over 3,600 lockups and nearly 5,000 calls for service to police last year. Consider how only two students graduated from high school last year. Consider how, as recently as 2008, fully 40 per cent of referrals to Tikinagan, northern Ontario’s First Nations childhood protection agency, were from Pikangikum. And consider the suicides, which have taken 96 lives—the vast majority of them young—in 20 years.
And yet there is a strange kind of optimism in Pikangikum these days. For all of its troubles (and after 14 years of negotiations), Pikangikum is where Whitefeather, a Canadian First Nations-owned company, will receive a licence to harvest the roughly 1.3 million hectares of the area’s surrounding forest—the first such project of its kind, according to the band and the federal government, with the local community reaping the benefits. Whitefeather is Pikangikum’s hope amidst its misery, a beacon in the suicide capital of the world.
Evenings are busy in Pikangikum. Families drive to and from the Northern Store, the only (official) place to buy anything, mostly in big, lumbering pick-up trucks. The view along the way is breathless: a brilliant sun dips toward a tree-topped horizon, lighting up the sky and reflecting off snow-covered Pikangikum Lake. Kids play hockey on a patch of cleared ice, and vehicles zoom off the ice road toward the town of Red Lake, about 100 km away. The air is so cold it’s dizzying.
I meet Jerry Strang on the 15-minute walk from the Northern Store to Pikangikum’s only hotel. Within 90 seconds, the rail-thin man in knee-high insulated boots is telling me unprompted how he lost his wife, a girlfriend and his boy to suicide. “I guess I got him mad,” Strang says. “He hung himself in the clubhouse he built. He was a carpenter like me, always used to steal my nails.” He’d like to meet someone else, but is afraid of the consequences. Then Jerry turns to me and smiles. “My sister says I’m cursed, you know?”
Death has long been part of Pikangikum’s landscape. The community’s dead are buried in the yards of family members, an Ojibwa tradition. Crosses draped with necklaces, caps, sneakers and other personal effects of the departed peek out of the snow. The ubiquity of these sites is a relatively new phenomenon, however. Though Pikangikum’s first reported suicide occurred in 1976, according to the 2002 documentary Back To Pikangikum, it remained a relatively isolated practice until the advent of gas sniffing in the 1990s. Three people killed themselves in 1992, and another three in 1993. There were eight in 1994, and a total of 27 between 1995 and 2000.
At that time, British sociologist Colin Samson, reflecting on these last suicides, said Pikangikum likely has the highest suicide rate in the world. In April 2001, following several more suicide deaths, then Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault appointed a third-party manager to oversee the band’s finances for what he described as “social reasons,” suggesting the band wasn’t able to handle its finances and the rash of suicides on the reserve. The band wouldn’t comply with the government, which in turn withheld funding. The school and Northern Store closed. A federal court later found that Nault had abused his powers.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Maclean’s Magazine website: http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/03/30/canada-home-to-the-suicide-capital-of-the-world/